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December 6, 2011 / theslowblitz

The Power of Intuition

A rational donkey stands poised equidistant from two equally tempting bales of hay. As both bales of hay are equally tempting, the donkey is unable to decide which bale to eat, and therefore starves to death. This is the paradox of Buridan’s Ass, a paradox aimed straight at the heart of rationality. Given two equal options, it would seem that rationality stops in its tracks.

Perhaps the rational donkey has considered beforehand the possibility of such an impasse, and decides beforehand that he would the left bale of hay in such a situation. This still leaves some questions to be answered. How would the rational donkey know that both bales of hay are actually equal, that neither bale has an apple hidden inside it? Why should the rational donkey always turn left, instead of right?

These questions may continue into infinity. The reason that we, unlike Buridan’s Ass, do not starve to death while making even the simplest decisions, is because we rely on intuition. Whenever faced with a fork in the road, we tend to turn right first. This is not a decision based on reason. We may always justify the decision with reason (“I prefer the products on my right more”), but new questions may always arise that bring the reason into doubt (“How do you know that the arrangement of the aisles haven’t changed?).

At some point, we stop questioning, especially in circumstances where we know nothing, having tried and failed to solve the unsolvable. Let us consider the bicycle designer. Even today, what keeps a bicycle upright while riding is a mystery to science. The most common theory, that the bicycle stays upright due to gyroscopic forces has been shown to be insufficient. What the bicycle designer does then, is rely on experience and intuition to determine the most effective arrangement of the four components of the bicycle – without understanding why it is so.

It seems then that hedge fund managers are being unfairly criticized when their understanding of how derivatives work is brought into question. The economy is inherently complex and difficult to understand. Even the best minds in the world are at loggerheads as to how it works, why should the hedge fund managers? As long a formula works, which is evident in the successes of the recent boom years, then I would not fault them for simply accepting it as is, the same way we accept how our cars, companies and laws work. It just does.  

Those who blindly followed the hedge fund managers are difficult to fault as well. It is difficult for any one person to be at once an economist, a scientist and philosopher. At some point, we have to refer to the authority of individuals. The vetting that may be done by reason is limited. To more clearly understand this, let us look at a common refrain: “You should have known this could not go on forever.”

When your property agent tells you house prices are rising due to population growth, an influx of immigrants and increasing wealth, he sounds perfectly reasonable. You don’t know enough about population movements and economics to prove him wrong, nor are you familiar with the other factors affecting housing prices. Thus, you believe him. It would not make be rational for you to investigate further; you are busy with organizing your child’s birthday celebration, and even if you looked, the economic mumbo jumbo deters you.

Hindsight is always 20-20. It is easy to say the hedge fund managers should have looked harder. Maybe, but maybe looking harder isn’t the point. No matter how hard you look at a puzzle you cannot solve, the puzzle does not solve itself. Humans are intuitive creatures, and we are intuitive for a very good reason. I would not fault people for doing something both natural and extremely useful in most circumstances.

Citations

Gyroscopic effects not sufficient explanation of bicycle mechanics:
http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~fajans/Teaching/MoreBikeFiles/JonesBikeBW.pdf

Extra readings

The power of intuition:
http://discovermagazine.com/2011/sep/18-your-brain-knows-lot-more-than-you-realize/article_view?b_start:int=0&-C=

Interesting tidbit from another article:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/magazine/dont-blink-the-hazards-of-confidence.html?pagewanted=all

“True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position.

To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers.

Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do. Many of the professionals we encounter easily pass both tests, and their off-the-cuff judgments deserve to be taken seriously. In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation.”

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December 4, 2011 / theslowblitz

The Justice System

Isolation, deterrence, rehabilitation and catharsis. Those are the four principles that guide our justice system. Underlying these four principles is telos, or the idea that justice means delivering the deserving end to members of society.

We only isolate those who have commited wrong. We find it immoral to punish an innocent for the sake of deterrence. We rehabilitate because we believe everyone deserves a second chance. Catharsis only arises when the guilty are punished.

Whether a man deserves punishment then becomes a very important question for society, and we recognize it as such. We dedicate some of the best brains in society to determining whether a man is innocent or guilty. We take care to separate the judicial system from politics. We severely punish those within the system who accept bribes.

Yet, we assume that the man who commited the crime is the same man standing trial. We believe that the very act of being caught changed nothing, even if, instead of laughing at the impotency of the justice system, he now fears the police and loathes the crime he has commited. Physically, he has aged. The tissues in his body have since broken down and reformed millions of times. It seems difficult, if not impossible, to prove the man’s continued existence, and hence his deservement of punishment.

On some level, we recognize this. If you show guilt when standing trial, you are likely to receive a lighter sentence, by virtue of being less deserving of greater punishment. I feel this misses the point. Before you may decide how much punishment to dole out, it is necessary to determine whether you are deserving of punishment in the first place. It seems that in the current justice system, as long as ‘you’ have commited the crime, you deserve some punishment, even if the concept of ‘you’ is unclear.

I doubt that our definition of ‘you’ begins from a rational or moral high ground. For me, ‘you’ only exist as long as your body exists. ‘You’ are your name, face and history. While it is true that I cannot prove this, we may only describe another person in such terms. Try imagining a person without a these traits. It works both ways. Given a name, face and history, even imaginary characters come to life.

Perception is often wrong, and varies between person. In judicial decisions we refer to moral law, not personal opinion. In determining a continuity between bodily entities, i.e. a person, exists without justifying the decision, we are doing exactly that.     

Even if the man commiting a crime and the man standing trial are the same person, ‘he’ did not commit the crime. His brain did. If, in a spastic fit, a man stabbed and killed his wife, we would not hold him responsible. He did not have mens rea, or the intention to act. Yet, we would deem the man who stabbed and killed his wife in a fit of anger a murderer His state of mind does not excuse him from the act – even if the same argument seemed fine a moment ago.

An explanation could be thus: the man who acted in a spastic fit could not control himself while the man who acted in anger could have. I believe this explanation attributes too much power to the will of men. It puts man above all else, a free mover in a world of causality. I find this highly improbable; neuroscience has proclaimed the death of free will, with experiments showing our brains having made decisions before we are conscious of the fact.

We love being in control. For this reason, I suspect our justice system and even our society has evolved to promote the illusion of free will. We may choose to act in a moral manner, even if all incentives within a society are alligned with acting morally, as defined by the same society. Without choice, morality is an imposition we have evolved to circumvent.

Indeed, when the illusion does not exist, or has been lifted, criminality follows. The poor always find it more acceptable to steal from the rich. The London riots occurred in a time when individuals believed society favoured the rich. ‘We are being oppressed.’ There is no need to honour the morality of a society in such a circumstance.

How would a moral nihilist design the justice system? This is the question I have come to ask today. There are two conflicting ideas. Society must communicate to its members what is right and wrong. Even in agrarian societies it is necessary to exclude individuals who break societal norms. However, we cannot simply run roughshod over our conventional moral notion that only the morally responsible should be punished.

If the sole purpose of the justice system is to imprint in our minds the notions of right and wrong, then I believe the framework of our current justice system is adequate. We punish for the sake of associating certain actions with terrible consequences; so long as we are equipped to perceive the man who comitted the crime and the man standing trial as the same person, it does not matter that philosophical inspections reveal the flaws of perception.

 

November 28, 2011 / theslowblitz

One Man, One Vote

In a democracy ‘one man, one vote’ is heralded. When I debated the right of the state to suspend labour uniouns in time of economic crises, I made the argument that no one should have more political power than another. Yet, when I left the heat of the debate, I realised that whatever might be claimed, equality in political power is not the case.

Hence I started exploring the ideas behind ‘one man, one vote’. Why is it in the first place that we have this preference, so much so that the Irish Catholics used it as a slogan in protesting for equal rights in Protestant-dominated Ireland? I began with the principle often claimed by Western democracies – liberty. Societal laws being by their nature an invasion upon liberty, yet entirely necessary for society to function smoothly, I thought the reasonable compromise between liberty and societal function was to allow each man an equal claim to another’s liberty.

When one party has more political power than another, there is oppression. Regardless people’s conceptions of their own morality, they will always consider their own interests above others. This is for three reasons. Firstly, the experiences that are used to gague the state are their own, or the experiences of people around them, who are like themselves.

Secondly, reason tends to be amenable to personal considerations; the rich would consider a fair society one where men are rewarded for their efforts, while the poor would consider a fair society one where men had equal stake, with neither party having the greater claim to the abstact good of ‘fairness’.

Thirdly, the claim may be made that it is morally right for those in power to fight tooth and nail for the preservation of their power; in a world where others’ views differ from your own, losing political power would result in the reversal your policies, policies which you enacted based on what you believed and probably still believe are morally right.

By giving every man equal political power, these infringements are reduced in degree: instead of being oppressed by your greater power, we agree as equals to sacrifice a portion of our liberties for our common good. As I would protest more strongly against a policy that infringes more strongly upon my liberty, policies that infringe less upon a population as a whole would be favoured, defending liberty. Freely choosing to surrender a portion of my liberty is also in greater agreement with the implication of choice in liberty.

The question must then be raised: Why is liberty important? Having been born and raised in Singapore, where liberty is not as highly valued, I find myself having difficulties answering this question. From a practical point of view, it is probably the case that the less my liberty is infringed upon, the less I would contest the government. For the sake of social stability then, the preservation of liberty is important.

Another argument in defense of equal political power is that it makes decisions less contestable. Whatever is agreed upon is agreed upon by the majority; the Asch conformity experiments as well as personal experience show that people are compliant with majority decisions, which again leads to social stability.

When decisions become contestable, there is cause for change, and when change is hindered by the political regime, violence inevitably results. Great disastisfaction with an unfair political process and the policies that result have led to the American Revolution, and The Troubles in Ireland and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka. Thus, to avoid the contesting of results, it is necessary to include each and every citizen, not giving more weight to any one group to avoid claims of unfairness.

Yet, is it fair to favour the majority over the political elite? Having greater contribution to the state on an individual level might be one claim to greater political power. It is an argument that the Romans seemed to have belived, and plutocracy seems to have served Rome well for several centuries. Then again, the schism between the Plebians and the Patricians have erupted in great violence on more then one occasion.

Arguments from fairness being difficult to resolve, I remain convinced that the disenfranchised, who have less to lose, are more apt to violence than the political elite, who ultimately gain the most from stability. At least from a practical standpoint, I would find myself favouring an equal decision-making process.

In an ideal society then, each man would have one vote, and no more political power than that granted to him by his vote. In reality however, some people will always have more political power than others, by the nature of their position. Those who control capital and labour will always have more bargaining power than those whose resources are minimal. Those who group together will always find their word more meaningful than those who stand alone.

It is not possible to simply ban these distorting forces; in a healthy economy for example, wealth flows to the most hardworking and talented (albeit with a preference for those who are already wealthy). To mandate equal control of capital, as communism has done, would be to prevent an economy from functioning healthily, resulting in more suffering. Thus, in our current society, we allow political inequality to exist where it may not be avoided.

When equality in political power is unattainable, what might be the next best solution? Here, I could understand why the government of the United States allows lobbying groups, or why the Singaporean government promotes a three-way discussion between the state, corporations and unions. By allowing powerful political groups to inhibit each others’ strength, their ability to infringe upon the common man’s liberty is limited. 

The obvious flaw with this arrangement is that not all groups are made equal. Uncompetitive orange farmers in California have much more to lose when trade subsidies are lifted than consumers, who only suffer a slight increase in taxes. The former lobby hard to protect their jobs, while the latter hardly notice. Given that political inequality is inevitable, and that the decisions made in an unequal political environment are likely unfair, how is the government to determine the fairness of this and any other circumstance?

It is not easy to claim that, through tariffs, we have infringed upon the individual consumers more than the we have infringed upon the orange farmers, given that the orange farmers experience far greater suffering. I could argue one way or another, but what I decide would be a matter of my opinion and not society’s opinion, which weaken’s the democratic virtue of the decision.

However, such translation is inevitable. Decisions made in an arena with unequal distribution of political power tend to be oppressive; it is up to the executive to correct for inequality. Such corrections would tend to result in more accurate representations, and strong incentives to maintain the political status quo eliminate the possibility of moving too far the other way. The incentives to maintain the political status quo are also strong however, even if this would result in more political instability in the long run. Here, I can see the seeds of an argument against democracy: a benevolent dictator would show more concern over the long run stability of his country, just as family corporations show less concern for short term profits, or so it may be said.

There are still many questions left to be answered: Why liberty? What happens when you allow a society to determine its own morality? Is democracy the best option after all? These among the many I have failed to realise. When I question the (probably naïve) conceptions I pose here, then a stronger conception might emerge. Until then, I am quite satisfied with what I have learnt of the society around me.

November 27, 2011 / theslowblitz

School

I am utterly convinced that the authorities should as far as possible, try to convey to us the value of the subjects we learn in school. The first reason being that it would improve our ability to learn; if we truly believed that what we learned was useful, just as a fireman would as he is being instructed, then we would hardly nod off whenever the teacher starts talking. The second reason is to ensure that what we are learning is actually useful. Without the need for explanation, it is easy for belief to masquerade as reason. 

School being structured as it is, with the schools having most power, there is no need for justification to the students. The students, having neither the knowledge to determine the curriculum’s value nor the incentive to try, lacking institutional power, will never challenge the system as it is being presented. What I propose then is a democratic institution: by creating incentives for the authorities to convey information, and incentive for the students to learn this information, the government of schools would be better carried out. 

I suppose I should at least try to make this happen, though I strongly doubt my ability to do so.

November 27, 2011 / theslowblitz

Genius

At age 10, when most of us were glued to our televisions, John Stuart Mill was reading Plato and Demosthenes in Greek. At age 16, when most of us have just graduated from highschool Albert Einstein performed his most famous thought experiment and realised that the speed of light would always be constant. At age 24, when most of us were just beginning our careers, Friedrich Nietzsche was offered a place as a professor of philology at the University of Basel, having neither completed his doctorate nor acquired a teaching certificate.

In comparing myself to such geniuses, I always feel more than a tinge of envy. What have I achieved in my lifetime? I am but an ordinary student, progressing through the stages of society in the most ordinary means. It suggests that no matter how hard I work, I will never achieve as much as these great minds. It suggests that I am destined to become a  background character, who watches enviously as the genius protagonist achieves everything that I have achieved in far less time and even more. I would then be humbled into my place in life.

It is a horrific image for me, though I could as easily chide myself for being so petty. Does it even matter that I am not as good as someone else, if I am satisfied in life? I suppose not. Yet, is not the telos of man to rise to his greatest heights? Accepting my place and denying all claim to such capability feels like defeat.

Perhaps I could comfort myself as I would comfort Caesar after comparing himself against Alexander – Alexander was born a king, you had to fight for your political power. Having been born with less, it is only fair that I would achieve less, at least until I could stand on my own.

Indeed, it is the case that most people we would consider geniuses – Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and even Bill gates were born either into wealthy families, or families which had specialist knowledge they could pass on to their children. These are the families that could afford giving their children good education, that could feed them as they slaved away at unprofitable theory, that had the connections to help their childrens talents be discovered.

Having said this, I might claim that my background is my destiny, that lacking money and connections, I am doomed to fail. Yet, I might point to the successes of Albert Einstein, who worked on the theory of relativity during his work as a patent clerk, or the extraordinary rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, from minor nobility in Corsica to the Emperor of France.

Of course, such extraordinary rises is dependent on extraordinary talent. Just as a man of average build would never be able to score higher than Kobe Bryant or swim faster than Michael Phelps, a man of average mental acuity would never be able to rise too far above his station. At least in Singapore, everyone works hard, but sheer observation tells you not everyone is a genius. Which brings me again to my worry, that I am perfectly ordinary.

Having thought this I can’t help but wonder; is this envy a sign of my normality? At least in popular culture, it seems that the genius is a naïve, self-absorbed thinker. Think Einstein locking himself in his room as he works on his theorem, eating food delivered through the gap underneath his door. My focus on others as opposed to my own work is then a sign of my having internalized the thought process of an ordinary man.

I refuse to end my writing on such a depressing note. Instead, I shall adopt the cause of genius, the naïve, self-absorbed and curious personality. If I desire excellence, even if not genius, then whatever favours me in my pursuit is favourable to my use.   

November 25, 2011 / theslowblitz

The Purpose of School

When kids tell themselves that they’re not good at math, that they are simply not the ‘math’ type of person, they stop working hard at math. Why work hard when I, by my character, will never achieve as much as my peers? But math, like all other subjects, requires effort to learn and master. In effect, these children are locking themselves out of a good grade, and perhaps a good future. What I have read on the matter, and it makes good sense, suggests teaching children that it is effort which matter, not innate intelligence.

But is that truly the case? While agree that anyone, with effort, can become good at math, I find it hard to believe that some people are not innately better at math. Isn’t it better then, to let some people knock themselves out of the running? This way, they may better use their unique talents, while raising the productivity of society as a whole. After all, we only need so many engineers. I suspect for this reason evolution has equipped us to identity ourselves by our relative strengths. This may be observed in the Big Fish, Small Pond effect: I feel smart when I am smarter than everyone around me, even if I know that compared to the rest of society, I may not be all that.

Yet school mandates that every student be good in every subject. This, disregarding our human nature. I can imagine two reasons for this. Firstly, schools may be operating on the rationale that the more knowledge you have, the better, since this equips you to choose whatever path you want. But this explanation doesn’t hold water; the aim of society shouldn’t be to maximize choices, but to maximize efficient allocation of resources. There is no point in everybody learning maths, science and literature at a low level when with greater specialization the same people could learn advanced math, particle physics and Romantic interpretations of Shakespeare.  

Another possible reason is that the society might deem school curricula important, yet incentives outside of school are insufficient to motivate students into studying them. I imagine most people would find physics quite boring, preferring instead to spend their time some other way, but society needs its engineers and inventors. Hence it creates structural incentives to graduate from school – no school, no jobs. Due to the skewed incentives, society may then add whatever it pleases, never mind that most people forget what they learn. As long as they pass through the system, first lured by structural incentives, and then incentivized to prefer those subjects through the praise and condemnation of well-defined authorities.

…This is not necessarily a bad thing. I would rather live in a society where schools conditioned people to become scientists and engineers than in a society where people are allowed to be as inefficient as they pleased. Yet, I resent the control placed over me. It is not something I can fight; the incentives are too great. In such a situation, it would be normal to adapt, to simply acknowledge school as an inescapable fact of life. But the myth that learning is a glorious human endeavour, good for its own sake, has been seared into me.

If only the myth were given up I might better adapt. It has been acknowledged before – countless arguments for school attest to its conditioning benefit to character. But the teachers themselves love to claim we are there for the sake of learning – for our own sakes, and not the societies. I suspect the myth will continue to propagate –  no one in their right mind would admit to the ones controlled that they are being controlled. 

June 26, 2011 / theslowblitz

Perception of probability

Absolute certainty is distinct from believing that an event has a 100% probability of being true; it just means that all possible objections have subjectively strong counter-points, such that you cannot conceive a reasonable scenario in which the even will turn out to be false.

Meanwhile, ‘probably true’ or ‘probably false’, while meaning nothing in a mathematical sense (as has been mentioned in the book Black Swan), indicates a belief that an event is true or false, but that has not been considered over so throughly such that there is absolute certainty.